Covid-19: Biden Says Vaccine Doses Could Be Available for All Adult Americans by End of May
President Biden announced Tuesday that there would be enough doses of the coronavirus vaccine available for the entire adult population in the United States by the end of May, though he said it will take longer to inoculate everyone and he urged people to remain vigilant by wearing masks.
Mr. Biden had previously said there would be enough doses by the end of July. On Tuesday, he said the faster production of the vaccine was in part the result of an agreement by the pharmaceutical giant Merck & Co to help manufacture the new Johnson & Johnson coronavirus vaccine under an unusual deal, brokered by the White House.
He said that agreement, along with other efforts by the government to help Johnson & Johnson produce more doses quickly, will substantially increase the supply of the new vaccine and ramp up the pace of vaccination just as worrisome new variants of the virus have been found in the United States.
“As a consequence of the stepped up process that I ordered, and just outlined, this country will have enough vaccine supply as a target for every adult in America by the end of May,” Mr. Biden said. “By the end of May. That’s progress. Important progress.”
He also said he wanted all teachers vaccinated by the end of this month.
The Merck arrangement, first reported by The Washington Post, comes just days after the Food and Drug Administration granted emergency authorization to the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
Merck is an experienced vaccine manufacturer whose own attempt at making a coronavirus vaccine was unsuccessful. Mr. Biden described the partnership between the two competitors as “historic,” and said it harks back to his vision of a wartime effort to fight the coronavirus, similar to the manufacturing campaigns waged during World War II.
“This is a type of collaboration between companies we saw in World War II,” the president said.
Both Trump and Biden administration officials had explored enlisting Merck’s help in manufacturing vaccines developed by either Pfizer or Johnson & Johnson. But Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, said the White House deserved credit for bringing the deal to fruition.
“There’s a difference between conversations and it moving forward,” she said. “I’m only conveying what got it across the finish line.”
Just how quickly Merck will be able to ramp up is unclear. It will take months for the company to convert its facilities to manufacture and package a vaccine that it did not invent, according to two people familiar with Johnson & Johnson’s operations who were not authorized to speak publicly. But one federal official with knowledge of the arrangement, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the administration hopes the deal would eventually double the doses that Johnson & Johnson could have manufactured on its own.
Although company executives have promised that the firm will catch up this spring, Johnson & Johnson has been running behind on its manufacturing targets as it tries to ramp up at its new plant in Baltimore. Its initial shipments of doses, delivered this week to states, were manufactured at its plant in the Netherlands.
Under the new agreement, Merck will dedicate two of its facilities to production of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
One facility will provide “fill-finish,” the final phase of the manufacturing process during which the vaccine is placed in vials and packaged for shipping. The other will make the “drug substance” — the vaccine itself.
Ms. Psaki said that the federal government will invoke the Defense Production Act to help Merck obtain necessary supplies and equipment, and has also asked the Defense Department to strengthen Johnson & Johnson’s manufacturing effort.
The Johnson & Johnson vaccine is the third to receive emergency authorization from the Food and Drug Administration — following Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech.
And the pace of the nation’s vaccination effort has been steadily accelerating. As of Monday, about 50.7 million people have received at least one dose of a Covid-19 vaccine, including about 25.5 million people who have been fully vaccinated, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
While the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines performed somewhat better in clinical trials, all three vaccines are considered safe and effective. And the Johnson & Johnson vaccine has some advantages: It requires only one shot, and studies show it may curb spread of the virus.
The other two vaccines use a new technology called mRNA, which allowed for faster design and testing of vaccine but resulted in a product that required more stringent storage conditions. Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine, which uses viruses to deliver genes into cells, can keep for three months at normal refrigeration temperatures, making it easier to distribute and easier for pharmacies and clinics to stock. At $10 a dose, it is also cheaper than the other two.
Johnson & Johnson’s $1 billion federal contract, signed last year when it had just started developing the vaccine, called for it to deliver 37 million doses by the end of March and a total of 100 million doses by the end of June. The company has now said it can only deliver 20 million doses this month, and senior administration officials have said the vast bulk of those will only be ready in the final weeks of March.
This week, states will receive 3.9 million doses that were manufactured at a Dutch plant and bottled in Grand Rapids, Mich. Johnson & Johnson is expected to mass produce the vaccine at a new Baltimore plant operated by a company called Emergent BioSolutions. Catalent, a different firm, will bottle the doses.
The F.D.A.’s authorization for emergency use, granted late Saturday, covered the Dutch production lines and the Grand Rapids bottling operation. In about two weeks, federal regulators are expected to decide whether to amend that authorization to include the other plants, according to the two people familiar with Johnson and Johnson’s operations. Until then, they said, supply will be uneven and limited.
For nearly a year, Merck has been searching for a way to play a key role in the nation’s vaccination program. Federal officials considered a possible partnership between Merck and Pfizer or Moderna, but Ms. Psaki said the mRNA technology could not be smoothly transferred.
Even with Merck, the two people familiar with Johnson & Johnson’s operations, retooling plants to produce the vaccine will be a laborious, months-long process. By the time it is accomplished the demand for shots may have waned.
Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas said on Tuesday that he was ending his statewide mask mandate, effective March 10, and that all businesses in the state could then operate with no capacity limits.
“I just announced Texas is OPEN 100%” he tweeted on Tuesday afternoon. “EVERYTHING.”
Governor Abbott took the action after federal health officials warned governors not to ease restrictions yet, because progress across the country in reducing coronavirus cases appears to have stalled in the last week.
“To be clear, Covid has not, like, suddenly disappeared,” Mr. Abbott said. “Covid still exists in Texas and the United States and across the globe.”
Even so, he said, “state mandates are no longer needed,” because advanced treatments are now available for people with Covid-19, the state is able to test large numbers of people for the virus each day, and 5.7 million vaccine shots have already been given to Texans.
Speaking to reporters at a Chamber of Commerce event in Lubbock on Tuesday afternoon, Mr. Abbott, a Republican, said that most of the mandates issued during the peak of the pandemic in the state would be lifted; he did not specify which mandates would remain. He said top elected officials in each county could still impose certain restrictions locally if hospitals in their region became dangerously full, but could not jail anyone for violating them.
“People and businesses don’t need the state telling them how to operate,” he said.
Target and Macy’s said on Tuesday that they would continue requiring customers and employees to wear masks, Reuters reported. General Motors and Toyota said their employees in the state would also still be required to wear masks.
Democratic leaders in the state reacted swiftly and harshly to the announcement. “What Abbott is doing is extraordinarily dangerous,” Gilberto Hinojosa, the state party chairman, said in a statement, adding, “This will kill Texans. Our country’s infectious disease specialists have warned that we should not put our guard down, even as we make progress towards vaccinations. Abbott doesn’t care.”
In states like Florida and South Dakota, schools and businesses have been widely open for months, and many local and state officials across the country have been easing restrictions since last summer. Still, the pace of reopenings has quickened considerably in the last few days.
In Chicago, tens of thousands of children returned to public school this week, while snow-covered parks and playgrounds around the city that have been shuttered since last March were opened. Restaurants in Massachusetts were allowed to operate without capacity limits, and South Carolina erased its limits on large gatherings.
The Biden administration has warned states not to relax restrictions too soon, despite the recent decline in cases. “We stand to completely lose the hard-earned ground we have gained,” the director of the C.D.C., Dr. Rochelle Walensky, said at a White House virus briefing on Monday.
The nation as a whole has been averaging more than 67,000 new cases a day lately, more than at any time during the spring and summer waves of cases, according to a New York Times database.
Texas was among the first states to ease restrictions after the first wave, a move that epidemiologists believe was premature and led to the summer surge across the Sunbelt.
Though conditions in the state and the nation have improved from a huge spike over the holidays, the coronavirus is still spreading rapidly in Texas. The state has been averaging about 7,600 new cases a day recently, rebounding from a drop in February when a severe storm disrupted testing. Texas is among the top 10 states in recent spread, averaging 27 cases for every 100,000 people.
Over the past month in Texas, more than 12 percent of coronavirus tests were positive, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. The rate is high — experts say a rate above 5 percent is worrisome and makes containing outbreaks difficult — but it’s below its peak of 17.5 percent in December. The high positivity rate might be attributed, at least in part, to the falling number of coronavirus tests being conducted across the country in recent months (if fewer healthy people get tested, the positivity rate can be inflated).
And Texans are still dying of Covid 19 in significant numbers: The state reported an average of 227 Covid-19 deaths a day over the past week, more than any other state except California.
Mayor Sylvester Turner of Houston and the top elected official in Harris County, Linda Hidalgo, both Democrats, wrote to Mr. Abbott on Tuesday before his announcement, asking the governor not to end the mask mandate and calling such a move “premature and harmful.”
“We must continue the proven public health interventions most responsible for our positive case trends, and not allow overconfidence to endanger our own successes,” they wrote.
Mr. Abbott made his reopening announcement in a Mexican restaurant, on the anniversary of Texas’ declaration of independence from Mexico in 1836.
Other places easing restrictions on Tuesday:
Gov. John Bel Edwards of Louisiana, a Democrat, said bars in his state could reopen and live music could resume indoors, though the state’s mask mandate would continue.
Mayor London Breed of San Francisco, another Democrat, said indoor dining, museums and movie theaters will be allowed to reopen on Wednesday at limited capacity, after improving case and hospitalization data moved the city to a lower tier in the state’s reopening guidelines.
Gov. Tate Reeves of Mississippi, a Republican, signed an executive order on Tuesday lifting the state’s mask mandate, though he still recommended that people wear them and practice social distancing. K-12 schools in the state will still require masks “where social distancing is not possible.”
The country music star Dolly Parton has yet another a new gig: Singing the praises of coronavirus shots and getting vaccinated on camera.
Last year, Ms. Parton donated $1 million to Vanderbilt University Medical Center, which worked with the drugmaker Moderna to develop one of the first coronavirus vaccines to be authorized in the United States. The federal government eventually invested $1 billion in the creation and testing of the vaccine, but the leader of the research effort, Dr. Mark Denison, said that the singer’s donation funded its critical early stages.
On Tuesday, Ms. Parton, 75, received a Moderna shot at Vanderbilt Health in Tennessee. “Dolly gets a dose of her own medicine,” she wrote on Twitter.
“Well, hey, it’s me,” she said to her fans in an accompanying video, a minute before a doctor arrives to inoculate her. “I’m finally gonna get my vaccine.”
“I’m so excited,” she added in the video, which racked up more than a million views within about four hours. “I’ve been waiting a while. I’m old enough to get it, and I’m smart enough to get it.”
She also broke into song (naturally), replacing the word “Jolene” in one of her best-known choruses with “vaccine.”
“Vaccine, vaccine, vaccine, vaccine,” she sang, embellishing the last one with her trademark Tennessee lilt. “I’m begging of you please don’t hesitate.”
“Vaccine, vaccine, vaccine, vaccine,” she added, “because once you’re dead, then that’s a bit too late.”
Just before the doctor arrived to inoculate her — or “pop me in my arm,” as she puts it — she doubled down on her message.
“I know I’m trying to be funny now, but I’m dead serious about the vaccine,” she said. “I think we all want to get back to normal — whatever that is — and that would be a great shot in the arm, wouldn’t it?”
“I just want to say to all of you cowards out there: Don’t be such a chicken squat,” she added. “Get out there and get your shot.”
In just a matter of weeks, two variants of the coronavirus have become so familiar that you can hear their inscrutable alphanumeric names regularly uttered on television news.
B.1.1.7, first identified in Britain, has demonstrated the power to spread far and fast. In South Africa, a mutant called B.1.351 can dodge antibodies, blunting the effectiveness of some vaccines.
Scientists have also had their eye on a third concerning variant, which arose in Brazil, called P.1. Research has been slower on P.1 since its discovery in late December, leaving scientists unsure how much to worry.
“I’ve been holding my breath,” said Bronwyn MacInnis, an epidemiologist at the Broad Institute.
Now, three studies offer a sobering history of P.1’s meteoric rise in the Amazonian city of Manaus. It most likely arose there in November and then fueled a surge in coronavirus cases. It came to dominate the city partly because of an increased contagiousness, the research found.
But it also gained the ability to infect some people who had immunity from previous bouts of Covid-19. And laboratory experiments suggest that P.1 could weaken the protective effect of a Chinese vaccine now in use in Brazil.
The studies have yet to be published in scientific journals. Their authors caution that findings on cells in laboratories do not always translate to the real world and that they’ve only begun to understand P.1’s behavior.
“The findings apply to Manaus, but I don’t know if they apply to other places,” said Nuno Faria, a virologist at Imperial College London who helped lead much of the new research.
But even with the mysteries that remain around P.1, experts say that it is a variant to take seriously. “It’s right to be worried about P.1, and this data gives us the reason why,” said William Hanage, an epidemiologist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
P.1 is now spreading across the rest of Brazil and has been found in 24 other countries. In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recorded 10 cases in several states.
To reduce the risks of P.1 outbreaks and reinfections, Dr. Faria said it was important to double down on every measure we have to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Masks and social distancing can work against P.1. And vaccination can help drive down its transmission and protect those who do get infected from severe disease.
“The ultimate message is that you need to step up all the vaccination efforts as soon as possible,” he said. “You need to be one step ahead of the virus.”
Health care workers — already at risk of coronavirus infection in the pandemic — also faced widespread violence in which some were beaten, scalded, stoned, kidnapped or even shot, a global study of attacks on medical workers found.
Researchers recorded 1,172 attacks on medical personnel in 2020, most of them in areas of conflict, with about 400 violent incidents linked directly to the coronavirus pandemic. And they acknowledged that the figure may barely scratch the surface.
“It was certainly more than 400,” said Christina Wille, director of the Switzerland-based nonprofit Insecurity Insight, which carried out the study. The research, released this week, drew on official accounts, episodes documented by nongovernmental organizations, and news reports, she said. But she acknowledged that many more cases were most likely never recorded.
Most assaults on health workers were by community members, coronavirus patients or their family members, the research showed. Ms. Wille recalled the case of doctors in India attending the funeral of a colleague who had died from the virus; they were attacked by members of the community who threw stones. The locals did not want the deceased health care workers buried in the community graveyard, she said. And in Nigeria, two nurses were attacked by the family of a coronavirus patient who had died.
But other medical workers were targeted by forces from the government, militias or the police, Ms. Wille said. Researchers recorded a number of assaults in India and found that the police featured in many of them. In one case, Ms. Wille noted, two doctors returning from a hospital shift were beaten with sticks by officers who accused them of spreading the virus.
Health teams tackling the pandemic were not spared in areas of conflict. A World Health Organization driver was killed and another worker wounded in Myanmar when their vehicle, carrying coronavirus testing kits, came under fire. In Yemen, armed men stormed a health center, carrying off cleaning supplies.
Much of the violence identified in the study occurred in the early months of the pandemic, as fear and anxiety grew over the virus and measures to contain it. The monitoring group said it would continue looking out for violence this year as vaccines are introduced.
There does not seem to have been a big problem so far — Ms. Wille said that older adults and the vulnerable groups often prioritized early in inoculation campaigns were usually “not the ones who pull out the knife and say don’t touch me.” But as more people become eligible, she added, “I think it may be the next issue to come.”
New York City is significantly increasing its capacity to test for coronavirus variants by quadrupling the number of coronavirus samples that can be sequenced in city laboratories in March, officials said on Tuesday, as the city begins a new program to vaccinate older people who cannot leave their homes.
Sequencing virus samples essentially means examining the genetic material for mutations, which can be used to monitor the emergence or spread of more worrisome variants that could stunt the city’s recovery.
City laboratories would, over the month of March, ramp up their capacity so they can eventually sequence up to 8,000 samples each week, said Dr. Jay Varma, a senior public health adviser to City Hall. He said the city currently has the capacity to sequence more than 2,000 samples per week. Earlier this year, experts had said the city’s capacity was far too low to understand the dynamics of New York’s outbreak. The United States’ overall ability to track variants is much less robust than Britain’s and federal health officials have expressed significant concern as variants spread.
“We have got to know a lot more about the variants,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said. “I don’t want people to think of the variants as something bigger than they are. I don’t want people to give them mythological powers. But I do want us to be sober and clear about the variants.”
The city continues to see people infected by new variants of the virus. Officials said on Tuesday that the B.1.1.7 variant, which was first identified in Britain, has been found in 116 residents of New York City as of Feb. 24, up from 59 the week before. Another variant, B.1.351, which was detected in South Africa, has been found in two New York City residents.
The B.1.1.7 variant is considered more contagious, while the B.1.351 variant has caused worry over its ability to blunt the body’s immune response.
Epidemiologists are also studying a variant recently found in New York City, which contains a mutation also seen in the South African variant. Officials said they were still trying to understand if that variant should be a cause for concern, with results expected as early as next week.
Still, Mr. de Blasio expressed optimism that, over all, the citywide rate of positive test results for the virus was declining. He said on Tuesday that the seven-day average was 6.09 percent; there were several days in January when the rate climbed past 9 percent. He said the vaccine supply was increasing, particularly with the anticipated influx of Johnson & Johnson vaccines.
A new vaccine site is scheduled to open on Thursday in Co-op City in the Bronx, and the city is beginning a program for in-home vaccinations for homebound older people, which Mr. de Blasio said would start “very quickly.”
Those people would receive Johnson & Johnson vaccine, Mr. de Blasio said, because it has one dose and is easier to store and transport.
The vaccine is a single shot, “which means one and done,” he said. “That is particularly important for protecting homebound seniors. They cannot get to vaccination appointments. It has to come to them. So getting it done in one dose is particularly important.”
Mr. de Blasio also called on the state to expand vaccine eligibility to lifeguards, sanitation workers, building inspectors, courtroom staff among other groups of people.
The state will be launching a pilot program to administer the Johnson & Johnson vaccine overnight at the Yankee Stadium, Javits Center and New York State Fair vaccination sites, Gov. Andrew M Cuomo said Tuesday. The governor said in a statement that the state was moving “as quickly as possible” to administer the 164,800 doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine it expects to receive this week after it was told by the White House that there would be a lag in next week’s allocation. “Thousands of new appointments” will be available at each of the sites in the coming days, the statement said.
Separately, Mr. Cuomo said on Tuesday that some fans headed to a New York Rangers game Tuesday night would be able to use a new app that will serve as a digital vaccine or negative test passport to speed their entry into Madison Square Garden. Under state rules, fans must have a negative test to attend.
The state has been piloting the app, called the Excelsior Pass, in an effort to fast-track the reopening of theaters, stadiums and other businesses. Similar to a mobile airline boarding pass, the app — which is not yet available to the general public — allows people to show a QR code or print out a pass to prove their negative coronavirus test result or vaccination status at the entrance.
At a White House virus briefing on Monday, Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, President Biden’s chief medical adviser for Covid-19, said that for small groups of people who have all been fully vaccinated, there was a low risk in gathering together at home. Activities beyond that, he said, would depend on data, modeling and “good clinical common sense,” adding that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention would soon have guidance for what vaccinated people could safely do.
Sharon Otterman and Bryan Pietsch contributed reporting.
Just over a year after the first cases of the coronavirus were discovered in the Czech Republic, the country is struggling with a surge in new cases that has left its health care system teetering, raised the death rate to one of the highest in the world and prompted a lockdown.
The Czech Republic reached 20,000 confirmed coronavirus deaths late last month, and its death rate per million inhabitants is among the highest in the world.
Even as many neighboring nations have seen a steady drop in new cases in recent weeks, Czech cases have climbed steadily, and the country entered a new national lockdown this week.
All schools are closed, residents are not allowed to leave their districts, and masks are mandatory. Thousands of police officers have been deployed to enforce the restrictions, with hundreds of checkpoints across the country. The government has said that it will call in the army if necessary for the initial three weeks.
But health experts say that the measures will not be enough to flatten the explosion of new cases.
Jan Trnka, a biochemist at Charles University in Prague, said the restrictions accounted for only a small number of the daily contacts that people have.
“I consider the most important measures those that haven’t been put in place,” he told Czech public radio. “That is to limit contacts at work, especially in industry.”
The government also approved a plan this week to require mass testing of workplaces with more than 250 employees, starting Wednesday. The measure will include companies with at least 50 employees by the end of the week.
Like much of the rest of Europe, the Czech Republic began its vaccination program late last year, but only about 3 percent of the population has received a shot. That is one of the lowest rates in the European Union.
Other nations have even started to help. Israel donated around 5,000 shots, France gave 100,000 and Germany agreed to pass 15,000 doses to regions in the Czech Republic near the border between the two countries, which have been among the most severely affected by the latest surge.
The Czech president, Milos Zeman, has also asked President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia for help, and deliveries of the Sputnik vaccine “should arrive shortly,” Mr. Zeman said this week.
Prime Minister Andrej Babis of the Czech Republic said on Sunday that his country could begin using the Russian shots even without approval by the European Medicines Agency, which vets vaccines for the European Union.
Roman Catholic bishops in the United States are instructing Catholic Americans to receive the Pfizer or Moderna coronavirus vaccine rather than Johnson & Johnson’s if given the choice, citing concerns over the use of cells with a remote connection to abortion.
But the bishops also reiterated the Vatican’s declaration in December that it is “morally acceptable” for Catholics to receive coronavirus vaccines, and emphasized that being vaccinated “can be an act of charity that serves the common good.”
In a statement released Tuesday afternoon, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops drew a subtle moral distinction between vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna, which used an abortion-derived cell line only in testing the vaccines’ efficacy. By contrast, the Johnson & Johnson vaccine used an abortion-derived cell line not just in testing but in development and production, which raises “additional moral concerns,” the bishops said.
Cells derived from human fetuses taken from elective abortions that took place decades ago have been used in vaccine research and manufacturing since the 1960s, according to Science magazine. Vaccines that rely on cell lines derived from fetal tissue also include those against rubella, chickenpox and hepatitis A. The fetal tissue is used only once — in this case decades ago — to derive a cell line. Because the cell lines are immortalized, production of the vaccines does not require additional fetal tissue.
According to Roman Catholic doctrine, any abortion not aimed at saving the mother’s life is immoral. But the Vatican says that the connection between the vaccines and abortion is distant, and has emphasized the “grave danger” of the pandemic.
The Vatican has said that both Pope Francis and his predecessor, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, received their first vaccine dose in January. Francis has described refusal to receive the coronavirus vaccine as “suicidal.”
The bishops’ statement on Tuesday follows individual pronouncements from the Archdiocese of New Orleans and the diocese of Burlington, Vt., expressing similar concerns about the Johnson & Johnson vaccine in particular. That vaccine, the first approved in the U.S. that requires only one shot, was endorsed on Friday by an expert panel advising the Food and Drug Administration, which approved it for emergency use the following day.
“While we should continue to insist that pharmaceutical companies stop using abortion-derived cell lines, given the worldwide suffering that this pandemic is causing, we affirm again that being vaccinated can be an act of charity that serves the common good,” the bishops concluded.
Even after significant drops in the number of new coronavirus cases, only 4 percent of the nation’s school children live in communities where the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends schools be fully open for in-person learning, according to a New York Times analysis of the agency’s latest figures.
President Biden’s administration has made reopening schools a centerpiece of its coronavirus strategy. And the C.D.C.’s recommendations call for every elementary school to be open in some fashion.
But the coronavirus transmission rates the C.D.C. set as thresholds for fully reopening schools are far lower than the number of cases and test-positivity rates in most of the country.
As of Thursday, those thresholds put almost all counties in categories where the agency recommended elementary schools reduce the number of students in classrooms, such as with a mix of in-person and at-home learning.
Based solely on case and positivity rates, full remote learning was the agency’s recommendation for middle and high schools in most of the country.
The guidelines have been controversial. Some experts have criticized them as stricter than necessary, and some large school districts decided to open under less stringent rules.
Those were the charming names scientists proposed for a new variant of the coronavirus that was identified in South Africa. The convoluted strings of letters, numbers and dots are deeply meaningful for the scientists who devised them, but how was anyone else supposed to keep them straight?
The naming conventions for viruses were fine as long as variants remained esoteric topics of research. But they are now the source of anxiety for billions of people. They need names that roll off the tongue, without stigmatizing the people or places associated with them.
“What’s challenging is coming up with names that are distinct, that are informative, that don’t involve geographic references and that are kind of pronounceable and memorable,” said Emma Hodcroft, a molecular epidemiologist at the University of Bern in Switzerland. “It sounds kind of simple, but it’s actually a really big ask to try and convey all of this information.”
The solution, she and other experts said, is to come up with a single system for everyone to use but to link it to the more technical ones scientists rely on. The World Health Organization has convened a working group of a few dozen experts to devise a straightforward and scalable way to do this.
“This new system will assign variants of concern a name that is easy to pronounce and recall and will also minimize unnecessary negative effects on nations, economies and people,” the W.H.O. said in a statement. “The proposal for this mechanism is currently undergoing internal and external partner review before finalization.”
In 2015, the W.H.O. issued best practices for naming diseases: avoiding geographic locations or people’s names, species of animal or food, and terms that incite undue fear, like “fatal” and “epidemic.”
Scientists rely on at least three competing systems of nomenclature — Gisaid, Pango and Nextstrain — each of which makes sense in its own world.
“You can’t track something you can’t name,” said Oliver Pybus, an Oxford evolutionary biologist who helped design the Pango system.
But when scientists announced that a variant called B.1.315 — two digits removed from the variant first seen in South Africa — was spreading in the United States, South Africa’s health minister “got quite confused” between that and B.1.351, said Tulio de Oliveira, a geneticist at the Nelson Mandela School of Medicine in Durban and a member of the W.H.O.’s working group.
“We have to come up with a system that not only evolutionary biologists can understand,” he said.
Whatever the final system is, it also will need to be accepted by different groups of scientists as well as the general public.
“Unless one really does become the kind of lingua franca, that will make things more confusing,” Dr. Hodcroft said. “If you don’t come up with something that people can say and type easily, and remember easily, they will just go back to using the geographic name.”
China is aiming to vaccinate 40 percent of its population against Covid-19 by the end of June, a prominent health expert said on Monday, even as the country faces significant challenges, including residents who are reluctant.
Across China, only about 3.6 percent of the population, or about 50 million people, has had at least one dose of the vaccine, Zhong Nanshan said during an online forum of health experts from China and the United States.
“It still needs time to reach herd immunity,” Dr. Zhong, an expert who helped lead China’s Covid-19 response, said during the event, citing his conversations with officials at the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention. The forum was sponsored by the Beijing-based Tsinghua University and the Brookings Institution, an American research organization.
China lags behind some other countries in its vaccination efforts. In the United States, 15 percent of the population has received at least one dose. In Israel, more than half the population has.
Chinese experts said at the forum that the pace of inoculation was relatively slow because the outbreak was largely under control in China and residents were therefore not rushing to receive vaccines. The government has said that the supply of doses is strong. China will be able to produce 2.1 billion shots by the end of this year, Dr. Zhang Wenhong, an infectious-disease specialist in Shanghai, said during the forum.
Dr. Zhang acknowledged that the slow pace “really is a great concern for me.” He said that even if 10 million doses of vaccine were administered every day in China, it would take seven months to vaccinate about 70 percent of the population of 1.4 billion. It will require five million doses every day to reach the 40 percent goal by June, Dr. Zhang added.
The United States, by contrast, is administering about 1.8 million doses per day, according to a New York Times database.
China has four vaccines approved for general use. Two are already being mass-produced, by the companies Sinopharm and Sinovac Biotech.
China has prioritized the export of vaccines to countries including Egypt, the Philippines and Thailand, part of its efforts to win diplomatic allies and improve its global image.
In other developments worldwide:
Turkey began easing some pandemic restrictions on Tuesday, allowing restaurants to reopen, removing curfews and resuming some in-person schooling under a “normalization” process based on case numbers in each province. The easing came a day after Turkey announced economic growth of 1.8 percent in 2020, making it one of the few countries whose economies did not contract during the pandemic.
Four countries in Africa and Asia will receive Covid-19 vaccines on Tuesday, an acceleration in the international Covax program set up to ensure that middle- and lower-income countries are not squeezed out of the vaccine market. Ghana and Ivory Coast received the first doses provided by Covax last week, and Colombia received a shipment on Monday, becoming the first beneficiary in Latin America, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the W.H.O. director, said during a news briefing.
Tuesday’s recipients include Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Nigeria and Cambodia, he said. The program aimed to deliver 11 million doses this week, and by the end of May, it plans to have allocated 237 million doses to 142 participating countries.
Israel’s health ministry confirmed on Tuesday that three cases of the variant detected in New York had been identified in Israel through laboratory sampling, and that those infected with the variant are all members of the same family. It was not immediately clear if the family members had recently arrived in Israel, or from where. Flights in and out of Israel have been severely restricted since late January, leaving thousands of Israeli citizens stranded abroad. The Israeli government also decided on Tuesday that starting March 7, any Israeli citizen who wanted to return could do so, up to a limit of 3,000 people per day. Entry for non-Israelis is mostly barred.
Albee Zhang contributed research.
The leaders of Austria and Denmark are heading to Israel this week to explore future collaborations in the research and development of vaccines against the coronavirus. The effort is something of a snub to the European Union, which has come under pressure for its slow approval and cumbersome procurement of shots.
“Among other things, we will discuss how we can become more self-sufficient in vaccines,” Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen of Denmark said in a statement announcing the visit last week.
Chancellor Sebastian Kurz of Austria was more blunt.
“The European Medical Agency is too slow in its approval of vaccines, resulting in delayed deliveries at pharmaceutical companies,” he said in an interview with Bild, a German news outlet, on Monday. “We have to prepare against further mutations and should not be dependent on the E.U. anymore for production of second-generation vaccines.”
Israel has secured ample supplies of the vaccine for itself and raced ahead with its own inoculation program, outpacing most of the rest of the world. More than half of Israel’s population of 9.2 million have received a first dose, and more than a third have had a second dose.
Stefan de Keersmaecker, a spokesman for the European Commission, the executive branch of the European Union, acknowledged that the vaccine rollout had come with a variety of obstacles. He added that it was “always good to learn from good practice in other countries and to explore opportunities for cooperation.”
“Let’s not forget that the Covid-19 virus requires a global response and that lessons from other countries are very helpful here,” he said, noting that the commission would be interested in learning from the partnership between Austria, Denmark and Israel.
He added that such efforts are not competing but “mutually reinforcing.”